The New Zealand Association of Gerontology held its 2012 conference in Auckland, on September 13-15. About 160 people attended, including your blogger. There were large contingents from universities, in New Zealand and overseas, almost equalled by representatives of District Health Boards, primary and hospital-level health services. Care home staff and suppliers of goods and services to aged care many times outnumbered people from central government agencies. Age Concern would have been the main voluntary organisation which was represented.
There were seven keynote speakers, four from Australia, one each from the UK, USA and NZ. The group included two psychologists, an occupational therapist, an old age psychiatrist, a geriatrician, a palliative care specialist and a Professor of Maori Health. A fairly strong health orientation is clearly coming through. There was a lot about dementia and memory loss (9 papers), end of life (6 papers – this was a theme of the conference), nutrition (6 papers). In the sessions which I attended (which included all the keynotes) retirement income was mentioned only twice, and elder abuse only once (my paper was called Protecting Older People from Financial Abuse, which I will talk about another time). There were only two papers on housing – both about retirement villages. The lack of policy-oriented sessions drove me to explore areas outside my usual interests, which was probably a good thing.
One of the themes was Active Ageing and Participation, opened by Lindy Clemson from the University of Sydney. She deplored the fact that Active Ageing is often seen as being all about physical activity and exercise. In fact, it is much more than this. The World Health Organisation defines the determinants of Active Ageing as Participation, Health and Security, summed up as “engagement in life”. Lindy described programs she has been involved in which challenge older people to stay involved, using activities related to everyday routines.
Bevan Grant, Juliana Mansvelt and Valerie Wright-St.Clair made a similar point – active ageing is much more than physical activity. Everyday life might seem mundane, but it entails complex networks. Instead of informing older people how they should live their lives they should be empowered to make sense of their lives in their own way – “Growing older is as much biographical as it is biological.” Food for thought.
On the other hand, a paper on Green Prescriptions (Asmita Patel, Auckland University of Technology) showed that only 34% of the 65 plus population have sufficient physical activity; 42% have some and 24% none.
Nevertheless, I really enjoyed several examples of great innovative ways to encourage older people to be involved and empowered. I would like to see these taken up more widely, not just as the subject of academic papers.
• Alexa Andrew of the Otago Polytechnic gave a paper entitled “More than just froth?”about a café in a rest home. This has become a social hub for the whole community, where residents can host friends and family, where mixed groups can get together and celebrate and where rest home residents can go, feeling that they have had an outing.
• A similar result came out of “Senior Chef” (Sally Watson, Canterbury DHB) – cooking classes for older adults. These not only helped to improve nutrition, especially for older people living alone, but also had strong social and psychological benefits. Most of the participants kept in touch with one another even after the courses had ended.
• Men’s sheds is another rapidly expanding initiative (the paper on it was from Barry Golding, University of Ballarat, Australia). There are apparently now over 800 men’s sheds in Australia, Ireland, England and New Zealand, helping to empower older men to be active and creative.
• Do older people want to be part of the solution to climate change? On Queensland’s Sunshine Coast they are taking part in a pilot sustainability programme – Living Smart Homes (Evonne Miller, Queensland University of Technology). Its themes are Return to Traditional Non-wasteful Lifestyles, Making Sustainability Fashionable and Voluntary Simplicity. Isn’t the last just a great idea and a counter-poise to our consumer society? Participants put a leaf-themed sign on their fence as a public acknowledgement of their commitment to sustainability. They enjoyed being part of sustainable community, meeting like-minded people and setting a good example.
Keeping active and connected to the community, having purpose and engagement in life and culture are protective factors for older people and increase their resilience. This was shown in the results of large-scale studies in New Zealand. LILACS (Life and Living in Advanced Age – A cohort study, University of Auckland) looked at Maori and non-Maori people in their 80s. This showed that physical wellness is not always a prerequisite for successful ageing. Half of older people considered they were ageing successfully despite having a chronic medical condition, because they had social support and a good quality of life.
NZLSA (The New Zealand Longitudinal Study of Ageing), which I mentioned in a previous blog, demonstrated that social isolation is linked to lower wellbeing, to loneliness and depression in older people. Social connectedness protects wellbeing and increases life satisfaction, especially having multiple group membership, said Jolanda Jetten, from the University of Queensland. Even in a residential care setting, activities that encourage group development can be shown to enhance cognitive health and wellbeing. Participation in a group may be an important way in which older people inoculate themselves against mental, cognitive and physical health risks.
The message is loud and strong – the way to Active Ageing is to get stuck in; to participate and contribute in whatever way you can!